International Women’s Day celebrates the cultural, social, economic and political achievements of women around the globe. It is also a call to action for accelerating gender parity – an issue that’s under the spotlight this year as the world continues to experience the devastating impact of the pandemic.
Women’s health issues impact individuals and communities across the breadth of our society. For example, women are 50 per cent more likely to receive the wrong initial diagnosis for a heart attack and they are twice as likely to be affected by dementia. These are just two effects of decades of female under-representation in both scientific studies and health datasets.
Gender is a significant stratifier that affects the treatment, experience and outcomes of many female patients, despite growing literature on the importance of using a gendered lens within health policy. Covid-19 has put health systems under immense pressure and stretched others beyond capacity. Now more than ever, we must seriously evaluate the extent to which the needs of female patients are being met.
There are three key areas within this landscape that warrant urgent attention: reproductive health, ageing and racial disparities. These are key points of focus being analysed in the landmark Public Policy Projects 2021 Women’s Health report set to launch at the UN Convention on the Status of Women in March 2022.
The impact of Covid-19 on reproductive healthcare access and rights has been profound. At least 9.5 million women have been affected by national lockdowns, travel restrictions, the absence of information about reproductive health services and supply chain disruptions, according to Marie Stopes International.
However, actions have been taken by some healthcare providers. For example, UK emergency abortion legislation was passed last year enabling women to access abortion pills at home and receive medical advice over the phone. While we must exercise caution when considering embedding these emergency changes for the long term, there is an opportunity to solidify the gains made in sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) over this period. The policy agenda must move away from an approach that controls women’s fertility, towards a framework that empowers women to make decisions that are right for them.
Covid-19 has brought health inequalities into sharp focus, having a potentially devastating long-term impact on older people, but especially on older women. Domestic violence, caregiving responsibilities, widowhood and discrimination in the workforce all increase female vulnerability towards poor health in older age, according to the World Health Organisation.
Both governments and civil society need to offer more strategic solutions in tackling the demographic shift of population ageing. To do this successfully, adopting a life-cycle approach to healthy ageing must be adopted; emphasising prevention and early intervention at every stage of life is key.
The 2020 Fenton Review highlighted the ways that Covid-19 has disproportionately impacted black, Asian and minority ethnic (Bame) communities. Black people based in England and Wales were approximately four times more likely to die from Covid-19 than white people in the early stages of the pandemic. It is essential that more is done to address racial inequalities within female healthcare.
Previous attempts have not had a tangible impact, and in some instances have resulted in stigmatising Bame communities. The government needs to continue with its efforts to eliminate racial disparities in the UK, investing in more research to better understand the full effects of racial biases on women’s health and healthcare services.
Data collection must be more diverse and inclusive. Only through research relevant to all women can they take charge of their own health. It should be an international priority to identify and implement effective strategies to eliminate racial inequities in health status and care.
From challenge comes change. Now is the time to encourage action for the future and spur the development of ambitious and timely policy that improves health outcomes for all citizens. The government’s health and care reforms must put women’s health at their core. The momentum we have built so far must now lead to tangible and impactful policy change.
Baroness Blackwood is deputy chair at Public Policy Projects
Baroness Morgan of Cotes is a keynote speaker at the PPP International Women’s Day Conference 2021